[Geek Culture is a recurring feature that highlights many of the non-video game related interests that we nerd-out on. This outing, Tim Torres argues in favor of Toonami's return.]
Instead of its usual April Fool’s Day prank of showing hipster chic B-movie The Room, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim program traveled back in time circa 1997-2001, when anime, at the height of its populairty, still played on American TV in the afternoons. For one night only they brought Toonami back.
And the Internet exploded.
I first found out from Jeffrey Wilson’s Twitter. Apparently he was watching Gundam Wing on #Toonami. I thought that was really odd since Toonami’s been off the air since 2008. But I was intrigued. I sent him a tweet: “Toonami is back?!” Then I got the sense to check the trending topics. If Toonami really was back the Internet would have noticed. It did, and it was really emotional about it:
@Grey_Dad #Toonami is trending, I must be dreaming.
@ReadytoWomble #Toonami *wipes tears* my childhood is back
@Idol360 Gundam Wing is next up on #Toonami. This unexpected blast of childhood nostalgia is going to make me cry.
@MolotovCupcake Some of the best moments of my life happened because of #Toonami. Made great friends. Fell in love with anime. Failed chemistry. Loved life.
@DammitFreehaven Thank you based #AdultSwim - you made me feel as if I were a kid again. #Toonami
Look up #Toonami and you’ll find many, many more sentiments like those. Social media exploded. Toonami trended globally on Twitter in minutes. For more than five hours Gundam Wing, Tenchi Muyo, Yu Yu Hakusho and other ’90s anime all enjoyed the Twitter spotlight. Message and image boards celebrated. This didn’t feel like an April Fool’s prank. It felt like we were all kids again. Even those like our own Jeffrey Wilson, who didn’t grow up with the programming block, got swept up in the animated fervor. Now he’s interested in checking out Blue Submarine No. 6 and The Big O.
So what was Toonami exactly and why did we love it?
From 1997 to 2008, Toonami was a programming block on Cartoon Network that showcased a variety of action shows, primarily from Japan. Before Toonami, those interested in anime had to put up with expensive VHS tapes at Sam Goody or crappy 6th or 7th generation tapes ordered off some fansub group’s website. Anime just wasn’t readily available for the budding fan. At first, Toonami didn’t feature much anime. Just older fare like Thundercats and Voltron. Then as it grew Toonami included Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z and Ronin Warriors, as well as American-produced shows like The Powerpuff Girls and ReBoot.
Once Gundam Wing arrived the floodgates opened. As Toonami’s name suggests, a tidal wave of animated shows once thought too mature for American viewers made their way stateside. There had to be some concessions made — the English dub acting wasn’t always the best, and ample editing cut out most of the blood, nudity and cigarette smoking — but this was the way anime was really meant to be seen. It was usually on in the late afternoon, after middle school and eventually high school; I tuned in while doing homework in the living room during commercial breaks. While watching Toonami, I was transported away from those awkward, formative years. Like the Disney cartoons of my earlier years, Toonami’s shows felt cozy, warm, safe. Others however, were challenging. Scary, even. They definitely had an impact on me.
Kids at the time saw a side of animation they’ve never seen before on Toonami. Many of the shows had long-reaching serialized stories with characters and situations that didn’t reset the moment the credits rolled. There were long-lasting consequences. There was permanent death, moral ambiguity, and plenty other “big ideas.” American shows like Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles and the early 90s X-Men cartoon accomplished much of this, too, of course. Batman, Batman Beyond and Justice League eventually got time slots on Toonami. But their superhero trappings, while fun as hell, felt childish next to the “grown-up” situations and settings anime offered.
Take Blue Submarine No. 6, an apocalyptic war story about mankind on its last legs against a race of sea-dwelling mutants created by a mad scientist. Its creature designs were both repulsive and alluring, a quality not lost on main character Hayami, a chain-smoking wreck of a man who takes a shine to one of the mad doctor’s more innocent creations. Besides cross-species flirtations, the show questions humanity’s worth as we set out to annihilate a species that may have just as much a right to exist as we do. Not until the more recent Battlestar Galactica have I seen a show as depressing and morally challenging on TV. Its ending, far from happy, is still locked in my brain. And this was an after school cartoon. Strong stuff for a 14-year-old to mull over (though peanuts compared to the ever-haunting Evangelion, which appeared on Toonami only once during a one-week Giant Robot showcase).
There’s also Gundam Wing, about five child soldiers sent down to Earth from space colonies to wage a war of revenge on the government organization that assassinated their peace-loving leader. Gundam Wing appears to betray the tragic theme of kids at war a bit by making the boys a little too cool for school even as they commit various atrocities. But watch longer and you’ll see the kids buckle under the psychological weight of their actions, especially as they integrate their own minds with the giant robots they pilot. Some of them seem cracked right off the bat. Heero Yuy, the owner of that big eye up there, wipes out a whole squadron in the first episode and laughs it off. Quite an impression for the supposed “hero” to leave on the viewer.
Wing‘s large scope, superb robot design and easy-to-follow plot made it an excellent entryway into the more complicated Gundam universe at large. Several iterations of the famous giant robot franchise would find their way on Toonami, including the original groundbreaking Mobile Suit Gundam, the Vietnam War-inspired 08th MS Team and the best of them all, 0080: War in the Pocket, about a schoolboy who unknowingly befriends an enemy soldier (voiced by Metal Gear Solid‘s David Hayter). These chapters, set in the same Universal Century timeline rather than Wing‘s alternate one, take a more realistic, nuanced look at war, genocide and nuclear annihilation — just a few of the happy topics covered by Gundam.
For more than five hours Gundam Wing, Tenchi Muyo, Yu Yu Hakusho and other ’90s anime all enjoyed the Twitter spotlight. Message and image boards celebrated. This didn’t feel like an April Fool’s prank. It felt like we were all kids again.
The Big O took things in a different direction. Set in a domed city where its inhabitants have no memory, The Big O stars Roger Smith, a detective who is basically Batman or James Bond with a giant robot. Each episode follows Roger solving the mystery of the city’s lost memories with the aid of robot sidekick R. Dorothy — shades of Blade Runner and Isaac Asimov. Part noir, part monster movie, each episode usually ended with Roger summoning The Big O to duel with another giant robot or monster. Though formulaic, the imaginative characters (like a scripture-spouting mummy man) and bizarre motifs (tomatoes, for some reason, play a huge part in season 2) helped make this the most interesting, original show on the block — all the way to the divisive, reality-bending end.
Meanwhile, shows like Outlaw Star and Rurouni Kenshin kept things light with their adventurous tones, though they also harbored darker sides. Outlaw Star‘s Gene Starwind and his co-pilots cope with feelings of fear, inadequacy and identity, while Kenshin’s outward cheeriness hides a killing machine trying to atone for sins committed during the Bakumatsu. Yes, Toonami even gave us Japanese history lessons.
Music was a major part of what made Toonami an event each time it aired. Interspersed throughout the programming there were promo videos about a minute to two minutes in length, that played techno and electronica music against clips of each show, edited in such a way to give them a through-line. The video “Broken Promise” collected specific footage and dialogue from Outlaw Star and a few other shows to convey the idea of the hero’s journey, that every boy (and girl, but guess who the main demographic was) has the right to dream and go out there and face their own destiny. It told us not to fear failure, something many of us growing up at the time needed to hear. It was nice of an animated programming block of all things to offer that kind of guidance.
On the flip side, the video “Mad Rhetoric” revels in the the energy and joy of destruction that anime illustrates so well. These videos, with masterful editing that tied all the shows together in a common theme, showed that the men and women behind Toonami really had a love and care and understanding for its content — and a respect for its audience.
We never felt talked down to or felt taken advantage of. We were treated like intelligent human beings — not dumb kids. And the program grew up with us. Eventually Toonami spun off into The Midnight Run, where shows like Gundam Wing had the blood and profanity reinstated. Music videos from Daft Punk and Gorillaz aired to give Toonami even more variety in its musical milieu. Seemingly, there was no end to Toonami’s capacity to educate our tastes.
And how could I go this long without mentioning T.O.M.? He was the robotic host of Toonami (after Space Ghost Coast 2 Coast‘s Moltar stepped down), who would come out, introduce himself and the shows, and even review video games. Aboard the starship Absolution, he was our celestial guide to the programming. He didn’t swear, try to act cool or act like a jerk like any other animated mascot. He was just a regular, working pilot who would sometimes rate a Final Fantasy game or offer insight into the anger issues of Dragonball Z‘s Vegeta. And he was voiced by Steve Blum, the ever-popular voice actor most famous for Cowboy Bebop‘s English dub of Spike Spiegel.
Eventually, Cowboy Bebop would find its way to Cartoon Network as the Midnight Run paved the way for Adult Swim, where its focus on the 18-34 crowd allowed more sophisticated shows like Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and a whole slew original (and syndicated) content that still airs to this day. Without Toonami there probably wouldn’t be an Adult Swim. In a way, it kicked off a renaissance for American animation. No Aqua Teen, no Venture Bros., no Robot Chicken, and FX probably wouldn’t have had the balls to air Archer either without the natural evolution of Toonami’s Midnight Run into Adult Swim. Adult Swim owes Toonami.
Which brings us back to April 1, 2012.
The April Fool’s prank — gift, really — was a one-time only event as far as anyone can tell. Once more hosted by a Steve Blum-voiced T.O.M., Toonami’s return brought Gundam Wing, Dragonball Z and Outlaw Star back, along with Yu Yu Hakusho, The Big O, Blue Submarine No. 6, as well as Bleach, Trigun and anime progenitors Astro Boy and Gigantor. There was a version of Tenchi Muyo, but not the way I remembered it. The animation looked cheaper and the plot was incomprehensible. A quick look-up online revealed it was the most recent version of the show, Ryo-Oki! or something, and not the one I enjoyed back in 1998. We can only assume some pesky licensing issues prevented Cartoon Network from airing the original show. Bummer.
Between episodes, the familiar promo music videos made a comeback, along with advertisements for DVDs of the shows aired. I was curious why they did this. With broadband Internet speed and streaming services widely available, anime DVD sales have been dismal — enough for big distributor Bandai to shutter its doors here. It’s fair to assume they made the extra marketing push to encourage fans and new viewers to support the waning industry if they liked what they saw. Makes sense.
T.O.M. also reviewed Mass Effect 3. And it wasn’t just a commercial for Electronic Arts. It was probably the most fair review I’ve come across, one that pointed out the game’s notoriously weak ending, something many reviews downplayed or neglected to do altogether. The review was a welcome contemporary flourish, and a surprising pinch to the nerve that yes, this is real, Toonami is alive in the year 2012.
Well, for one night at least.
Steve Blum also weighed in on Toonami’s temporary return on Twitter that night:
@blumspew For the record, Wikipedia, I did NOT say it’s here to stay. …But I sure hope so. Let ‘em know you want it…
He later linked to Cartoon Network’s feedback page, something a lot of users retweeted and shared. The feedback page used to have a Toonami category there, but it appears to be gone now. (Update: It’s still there, just look under Programming then select Toonami under Topics.)
Soon, Adult Swim’s Twitter account asked “Want it back? Let us know. #BringBackToonami”. And then April 4 saw this message: “#BringBackToonami We’ve heard you. Thank you for your passion and interest – stay tuned.”
Given the massive social media reaction, not to mention years of fans asking for its return, and fans who took its return into their own hands with streaming sites like ToonamiAftermath, it looks like they’re seriously considering a proper resurrection. It couldn’t hurt to keep the tweets coming and that feedback page busy until Cartoon Network makes a proper announcement.
Which it should. I barely watch Cartoon Network anymore. I hardly watch Adult Swim anymore. This past April Fool’s was the first time I turned my TV on in ages (except for Mad Men). If Toonami returned I’d have a reason to watch again.
But forget me. And forget you! Won’t somebody please think of the children? I look around the animated landscape children are subjected to now and I wince. Adventure Time and the new Thundercats look decent, but I’m at a loss as to what else is worth a look that compares to what Toonami offered. My Little Pony? Puh-leeze.
Consider this: I used to work at some schools in New York City and let me share with you, kids still love DBZ, Pokemon and anime. They are fascinated with this stuff. They wanted my suggestions all the time, and I suggested everything I saw on Toonami. Kids are thirsty for things with substance as well as action. They would eat it up and ask for more, just like us nostalgic 20/30-somethings still do. Nickelodeon brought back their 90s block after a long hiatus and a lot of vocal desire from its fanbase. Cartoon Network can do the same basic thing. These shows, as we saw (for the most part) last weekend, hold up. And not just those shows, there are plenty of others Toonami can pick up on like Gundam AGE, Code Geass and Persona 4: The Animation. So long as licensing issues don’t screw everything up as they are wont to do.
Meanwhile, badger that feedback page and send those Tweets. T.O.M.’s coming home.